An insight onto the Japanese language writing system through its 3 Primary Scripts: Interesting Facts You Need to Know!

Deeper Insights onto Japanese Language Writing System!

Understanding Japanese language writing system and its Various Scripts

An insight onto the Japanese language writing system through its 3 Primary Scripts: Interesting Facts You Need to Know!

It is important to understand how a dialogical process amongst two different cultures, and how the pre-existence of one language culture can quite significantly lead to the development and organization of another. There are several aspects of the Chinese lingual elements, which can be significantly observed in order to understand the formation and influences upon which the Japanese language writing system has developed into its current existence. The Japanese language has developed and inculcated several aspects from the Chinese language in its writing system and yet it is so distinct and clearly distinguishable from it. Therefore, on the basis of that, it can be understood that two languages might as well adopt and co-exist with similar elements of pictorial characters (kanjis), pronunciations, grammar, syntaxes, etc. but at the same time they are quite multi-faceted and individualistic in terms of their subtle intrinsic aspects. This is the primary reason that should motivate one to engage in a topic like this, which aids in understanding the dialogical processes of linguistics and at the same time, also aid in understanding how it is necessary to attempt to understand the clear individuality of all languages and cultures. Apart from that the calligraphic aspects which lead to the development of the Japanese language, also lead to me inhabiting a specified interest in the writing system of Japanese language.

How the Writing Component is Important in the Japanese Language Writing System

Writing is an essential component of the Japanese language, and in order to effectively practice communication, conversations in a daily context and to fluently use vocabulary and be sensitive towards grammatical rules of the language, the Japanese have developed the Japanese language writing system, also referred to use the Japanese language scripts which are primarily of three different kinds, namely, Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. These three different scripts collectively form the Japanese language writing system.

Hiragana is the first kind of script, which involves phonemes and/or language syllables for pronunciation and writing. This script is particularly restricted to be of use only to refer to and connotate towards native Japanese vocabulary and terms (local names, local places, natively produced products, anything related to the native Japanese language and culture). It can be written with adequate practice in stroke order and shape and size of each specific phonetic character or syllable included in it.

Katakana is the second kind of script, which also involves phonetic characters and/or language syllables, but not to be used to refer to native Japanese vocabulary or cultural influences. It is primarily assigned in terms of referring to foreign vocabulary, such as international names, internationally produced products, countries and anything which can be understood as not native of Japan. It is written with a thorough practice of specific stroke orders and differentiations in size and shape of each syllable involved in it.

The syllables in both Hiragana and Katakana are in the same order with the same pronunciations, but different in the way they are written in both of these scripts. The same syllable is written in a completely different manner in both the scripts. Also, both these scripts form a part of kana or the Japanese syllables, while Kanji is a pictorial script.

Historic Influences Observed in Japanese Language Writing System

There are several influences of calligraphic writing observed in the manner of writing the Japanese Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji syllables. Several professional scribes and calligraphy writing experts derive an entire profession in writing Japanese scripts. Even if a layperson learning to write the syllables in the two kana scripts as well as getting accustomed to the third pictorial script of kanji, might have to engage in a basic form of calligraphic writing by paying attention to the curvature involved while writing the hiragana syllables and the straight linear format as well as being vigilant to remember the correct stroke order while writing each character/syllable since otherwise it might be interpreted as some other syllable by the reader. There are several individual differences observed in the manner of writing the same syllables, even after following the stroke order, and all other intricate details while writing. The calligraphers and scribes add their personal touch to the writing by making the strokes and curves more prominently visible. There is also a minor variation observed in the visual representation of the three scripts when represented in an electronic format as typed in computers, laptops, or in electronically printed textbooks, other textual material, etc.

History of the Japanese Language Writing System

During the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), the Japanese native residents came into contact with the Chinese population, and post this historical and cultural exchange, a new linguistic Japanese culture was particularly made into existence, by the 5th century CE onwards. The Japanese writing system is based on the Chinese model, but they are quite distinct to each other. While the Chinese language is a bit isolated, including monosyllables and the Japanese language includes separate syllables, which are a combination of logographic elements and kana syllables which use similar sounds and pronunciations to that of Chinese language, but carry a different meaning altogether (Hiragana and Katakana).

Initially, during the developmental stage of the Japanese language writing system, there was existence of a script which was termed as the man’yogana, which was similar to the Semitic alphabet, and it was combined with kun writing. But the issue the natives and the other readers of the script were facing was that it was impossible to correctly read and derive the perfect meaning of the text since it was complicated to read and understand it in a clear sense, since it was a combination of multiple kun readings (Japanese reading of Kanjis) and a large number of homophones. The same text could be read in multiple manners.

Between the period of the 9th and the 10th centuries, two sets of syllabic sign evolved, now which we understand as hiragana and katakana. Hiragana can be understood as ‘plain’ kana which involves writing of Chinese characters in a cursive manner. Katakana refers to ‘partial’ kana, which involves writing of Chinese characters in a straight and linear manner. Kanji refers to writing of the complete Chinese characters.

The modern and contemporary manifestations of Japanese writing system involve a much more deep emphasis upon the addition of kana syllabic graphs in a given sentence line as opposed to usage of Kanjis, which were heavily relied upon in the previous times during the initial development of the writing system. In 1946, a standardizing reform specified the usage of 1850 kanji, which was increased to 1945 in the year 1981, and specifically emphasized upon the usage of kana for all other words. Despite of several linguistic reforms in the Japanese writing system, it is quite ambiguous to understand it even in the contemporary times, since a single vocabulary in it connotates towards different meanings, not just in Japanese kana and kanji, but also in Chinese and Korean origins. For instance, the term ‘kan’ is understood as ‘sweet’, ‘to be affected’, ‘print’, ‘be accustomed to’, ‘view’, ‘investigate’, ‘slow’, ‘tube’, ‘enjoy’, ‘a volume’, “Chinese” and “Korean” among the various other meanings. Therefore, one must be careful while using the vocabulary, since it becomes otherwise difficult to follow the specific meaning of a given word.

Addition of ‘tenten’ in Hiragana under Japanese Language Writing System

Apart from the 46 primary alphabets/phonetic sounds in Hiragana, there are evidences of 20 additional sounds, which are introduced into the hiragana script by adding an additional sound of a mark termed as a ‘tenten’ which is represented by adding two small lines above the alphabet. The addition of a tenten changes the pronunciation of the alphabet, such as the ka-line (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko) upon addition of tenten, changes to the ‘ga’ sound such as ga, gi, gu, ge, go. The sa (sa, shi, su, se and so) line changes sound to za, zi, zu, ze, zo by addition of tenten. The ta (ta, chi, tsu, te, to) line changes its sound to da, di, du, de do. The ha line (ha, hi, fu, he, ho) changes its sound to ba, bi, bu, be and bo. It is represented as a diacritic in the Japanese script, by writing it as (゛).

Addition of ‘maru’ in Hiragana under Japanese Language Writing System

Along with the existing 46 hiragana syllables and the additional 20 sounds arising after adding the tenten, there are 5 more sounds that arise after adding a circle like character termed as the maru which is represented as written above the syllable, just like the tenten. The only exception in a maru pronounced syllable, is that they are only 5 in number, to be specific, the ‘ha’ syllable line is pronounced as pa, pi, pu, pe, po by adding the maru. There is no other line which can be pronounced by addition of the maru. It is represented in the script as “◯”.

Addition of ‘tenten’ in Katakana under Japanese Language Writing System

The addition of a two-lined mark termed as the tenten is also added in the Katakana script, like it is added in Hiragana. Although, the manner in which the syllables in Katakana are written are quite distinguished, since Hiragana syllables follow a subjective curvature in their writing and on the other hand, the Katakana syllables follow a linear and straightforward line. Similar to the Hiragana script, the Katakana syllables too develop a different sound and pronunciation, upon being written with the ‘tenten’ above them. The 20 sounds that arise independently are as a result of adding a tenten on the different syllabic lines. The ka line (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko) changes to ga, gi, gu, ge, go. The sa-line changes to za, zi, zu, ze and zo. The ta line changes to da, di, du, de and do. The ha line (ha, hi, fu, he and ho) changes to ba, bi, bu, be and bo. It is represented as a diacritic in the Japanese script, by writing it as (゛).

Addition of maru in Katakana under Japanese Language Writing System

Similar to Hiragana, Katakana also has 5 additional sounds which are pronounced when the maru or the small circle is written above the ha line (ha, hi, hu, he, ho) and is pronounced as pa, pi, pu, pe and po. It is represented in the script as “◯”.

Kanji script in Japanese Language Writing System

Kanji refers to the third kind of script of the Japanese language writing system and it represents pictorial representations or symbolic characters used to refer to specific terms of the vocabulary. The Kanji is the most unique script out of all three writing scripts, as it is non-verbal in nature and involves drawing of symbols to represent native Japanese terms as well as historically Chinese terms, since Kanji is derived of Chinese characters. Kanjis also follow a certain inherent stroke order, which needs to be practiced while writing these characters.

An interesting fact about kanjis as being the third language script is that they are not limited or restricted to refer to or used in order to represent a single vocabulary term or character. In several instances, the kanji one might be using to refer to say the term ‘day’ (“youbi” in Hiragana), might as well as be read as “Nihon” or ‘Japan’.

Although some kanji have similar meanings and pronunciations as used in Japanese and Chinese, others have meanings and pronunciations that are unique to one language or the other. For example, “honest” in both Chinese and Japanese, is pronounced makoto or sei in Japanese, but pronounced chéng in Standard Mandarin Chinese. Individual kanji characters invented in Japan, or multi-kanji words coined in Japanese, have also influenced and been borrowed into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese in recent times. For example, the word for telephone, denwa in Japanese, is termed as diànhuà in Mandarin Chinese, điện thoại in Vietnamese and jeonhwa in Korean.

A combination of 2-3 kanjis makes up a large term, which can be individually read as referring to several separate short words. Since the kanjis are basically derived from the Chinese language scripts and then incorporated onto the Japanese language, therefore, the kanjis have two different readings, one which is the ‘onyomi’ or Chinese reading and the other as the ‘kunyomi’ or Japanese reading. Chinese characters first came to Japan on official seals, letters, swords, coins, mirrors, and other decorative items imported from China. The earliest known instance of such an import was the King of Na gold seal given by Emperor Guangwu of Han to a Wa emissary in 57 AD. Chinese coins as well as inkstones from the first century AD have also been found in Yayoi period archaeological sites. However, the Japanese people of that era probably had little to no comprehension of the script, and they would remain relatively illiterate until the fifth century AD, when writing in Japan became more widespread. The earliest Japanese documents were probably written by bilingual Chinese or Korean officials employed at the Yamato court. The Japanese language had no written form at the time Chinese characters were introduced, and texts were written and read only in Chinese. Later, during the Heian period (794–1185), a system known as kanbun emerged, which involved using Chinese text with diacritical marks to allow Japanese speakers to read Chinese sentences and restructure them into Japanese on the fly, by changing word order and adding particles and verb endings, in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar. This was essentially a kind of codified sight translation.

Learning Outcomes Observed in the Japanese Language Writing System

After researching on the given topic and making a presentation on it, I could understand the necessary transience involved while learning any given language with reference to its writing system, such as writing scripts, other elements of grammar, vocabulary, etc. The ancient Japanese writing system involved several complicated elements such as usage of multiple kanjis in a single sentence and lesser emphasis on syllabic kana. The same word could be read and interpreted in multiple manners and therefore, it could be significantly be understood as involving ambiguity. Later, there were several reformation policies involved which led to the modification of the writing system, limiting the use of kanjis and relying heavily on the kana for vocabulary. Similarly, it also gave me a major insight regarding the intercultural and multilingual elements involved in the formation and development of the Japanese language, such as the adaptation of Chinese kanji characters, with a newly developed Japanese kunyomi reading with new meanings. It also led to addition of several elements such as Japanese grammar involving verbs, particles, noun modification, etc. Similarly, other languages too influenced their writing systems based on Japanese vocabulary. Therefore, regardless of the harmonious co-existence and complementary relationship involved amongst two languages, there are several aspects and nuances to it which clearly distinguish it from other languages and thereby defy their similarities, with increased differences involved.


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